Boot Camp for Cats: A New Story
When I was eleven years old in the spring of 1944, the whole world knew that the Allies were about to launch the invasion of Europe. It was only a matter of when and where. In Nodaway County, Missouri, most able-bodied men between the ages of eighteen and forty were in the armed services. Morning, noon and night we listened on our Philco radio to the news broadcasts telling us about the fighting that day. On Saturday nights the main feature at the movie theater was preceded by newsreels with pictures from the War Zones, sometimes showing our troops in England training for the invasion that was about to begin.
We knew that when the invasion started commandos would swim into the beaches from the sea and other troops would parachute behind the enemy lines. I was very interested in these new forms of attack, and hoped that I soon could join the Army to help defeat our Nazi and Jap enemies. I gave little thought to my lack of experience. I couldn’t swim, had never even been in a swimming pool or body of water larger than a bathtub and had never been higher off the ground than the roof of our barn or the top of the windmill.
Not to be frustrated by my personal limitations and lack of equipment, and in a rush of patriotic fervor, I decided to train one of our cats as a commando to experience at least vicariously the thrills and rigors of this training. But which cat? We had an army of cats of all sizes and colors living in the barns and farmyards. As I pondered this question, my father’s favorite, Joshua, a young yellow tomcat, ambled across my line of sight on his way to the barn to call on one of his many girlfriends. I immediately recruited him, gave him a few friendly stokes and pats on the head and headed for my only body of water–the water tank for livestock behind the barn.
As we approached the tank, the recruit stopped purring and came to attention with claws extended. Because of the urgency of the training mission, I immediately lowered him into the water as gently as possible, the cat clinging to my arm with all claws extended. The brave, but very wet, kitty swam a few strokes and started to sink. As encouragement, I complemented him on his fine effort and lifted him out of the water, rewarding him with a couple of pats on the head. Then back into the ocean for another lesson. With superior athleticism the cat swam a half dozen strokes before letting out a screech. I observed his fur was holding too much water causing the recruit to sink.
I had the solution. The newsreels said that commandos used grease to increase their buoyancy and keep themselves warm. I had brought a jar of Vaseline for this purpose and started to apply it generously to the cat’s fur.
Just then Father appeared, leading a team of horses to the water tank. He stared at the scene, his face reddening. It took him a full minute to comprehend that the wet creature half covered with Vaseline was his Joshua.
Outraged, he shouted: “Frankie Babb, get that cat out of the water!”
I sprang to attention, responding to the order given by my superior officer, and snagged Joshua, who by this time had taken quite a bit of water. Holding the recruit by his hindquarters, I wrung him out. Not knowing what else to do, I handed him to the commander in chief. Joshua was by this time revived enough to start spitting and sank his claws into Father’s arm. He was taking no prisoners.
“If I ever catch you putting Joshua in the water tank again, I’ll flay you alive,” Father shouted, and I knew he meant it.
Not wanting to test Father’s threat, I abandoned swimming lessons for cats. But I knew parachute training would be successful. This is another story, however, with a happier ending. Several months passed before Joshua would let me get closer to him than fifty feet.